Today marks the second day of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a seven day holiday celebrated around the world by people from the African diaspora. Ever since I was a fifth grader, I have been aware of this holiday. At that time, my family and I were attending a predominantly Black Baptist megachurch which celebrated both Christmas and Kwanzaa. As a family, we didn’t really celebrate the holiday but I grew to respect people who chose to. One of the laziest criticisms of Kwanzaa is that it is a “made-up” “fake” holiday. If we are gonna be honest, all of our holy days are socially constructed, or “made up” as they say. I would argue what matters not is the origin stories of holidays, but ultimately the values that they teach.
In his significant work, Black Theology & Black Power, James Cone quotes Kwanzaa founder Maulana Ron Karenga and his criticism of Christianity, and the need to “concern ourselves more with this life which has its own problems. For the next life across Jordan is much further away from the growl of dogs and policemen and the pains of hunger and disease” (page 33). In the era of Black Lives Matter, I find Karenga’s words timely. U.S. Christianity, specifically White evangelicalism, has sneered at visions of black liberation for decades. Rather than join the struggle versus mass incarceration and the pre-school to prison pipeline that subjugates an overwhelming number of young black boys, White Christians would prefer to continue to perpetuate antiBlack narratives and politics for the sake of maintaining their power.
White Supremacist myths that continue to oppress Black people include the slaveability and dependent nature of Black souls. In this mythology, Blacks do not like freedom, Black people are servile, they play the entertainer, the really good athlete, the nice Black soldier, the “welfare queen,” or the uncritical “uninformed” Democratic party voter all at the same time. We see these images in the white supremacist media from good liberals at ESPN to the nice establishment conservatives at the Wall Street Journal. Black intellectuals are never seen as unique thinkers, only the black versions of European greats, like Frantz Fanon as the Black Jean-Paul Satre, for example.
These racist myths exist only to justify the current status quo, and to justify the four hundred year legacy of Black enslavement without any means of reparations, justice, or reconciliation. And yet, today is what celebrants of Kwanzaa call Kujichagulia Day, a day to reflect on SELF-INITIATIVE, SELF-RESPECT, AND SELF-DETERMINATION. If our notions of the human involve racist ideas, then I suggest that unfreedom, oppression would be part of our understanding of personhood. This would explain the preferred viciously antiBlack racist anthropological gaze of the majority population here in the United States. However, if one’s understanding of our humanity is that freedom is an inextricable part of our being, then the desire for self-determination shouldn’t be considered anything to be but natural. Over the years in my experience as an educator in a special education program, I have had to re-learn and learn with teenagers with disabilities about the value of self-determination. When working with various students with disabilities, I have learned that autonomy is going to look a whole lot different from one student to the next. For example, for one student who may be higher functioning with a slight learning disability, independence could look like moving away from study helps like dictionaries to newer reading strategies. Or, for another student who may have a significant intellectual disability and motor impairment, self-initiative could look like learning how to crawl and then walk for the very first time with the help of leg braces and a gait trainer. Self-determination isn’t going to look the same for everyone.
This essay is not only a push for the Black community to being more inclusive of people with disabilities in the practice and idea of Kujichagulia, but also to make it (self-determination), the strive towards freedom more contextual and less hegemonic. Such a move would allow us to also make a break away from essentialism that we sometimes see from defenders of Black culture. What if all Black college football players decided to boycott the NCAA until they, and all other student-athletes were paid? Or imagine a world where Black writers didn’t have to be the only ones left to navel-gaze of the history of white supremacy? Hear me out, but maybe what if Black scholars started doing work independent of White theorists and started appreciating the intellectual history and labor of Black people? What if Black self-initiative looks like not needing the approval of Whites, whether they be conservative or liberal or Marxist? We cannot have any form of racial reconciliation or racial justice without first developing a self-respect for our own work in a world where there exists a preferred hierarchy of values.
Photo Description: Photo is a drawing of the 7 Kwanzaa candles, from left to right, 3 green candles, 1 yellow candle, then 3 burgundy candles. Photo was taken by Katallna-Marie Kruszewskl. found on flickr.